Nights of Cabiria
One hundred years after his birth, Federico Fellini still stands apart as a giant of the cinema. The Italian maestro is defined by his dualities: the sacred and the profane, the masculine and the feminine, the provincial and the urbane. He began his career working in the slice-of-life poetry of neorealism, and though he soon spun off on his own freewheeling creative axis, he never lost that grounding, evoking his dreams, memories, and obsessions on increasingly grand scales in increasingly grand productions teeming with carnivalesque imagery and flights of phantasmagoric surrealism while maintaining an earthy, embodied connection to humanity. Bringing together fourteen of the director’s greatest spectacles, all beautifully restored, this centenary box set is a monument to an artist who conjured a cinematic universe all his own: a vision of the world as a three-ring circus in which his innermost infatuations, fears, and fantasies take center stage.
The sixth dual-layer disc in Criterion’s latest director-centric box set, Essential Fellini, presents Nights of Cabiria in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition encode has been sourced from a recent 4K restoration, scanned from a 35mm interpositive.
Criterion had previously released the film on DVD back in 1999, using a then-new restoration completed by Rialto in 1998, notable for including a previously excised 6-minute sequence. Based on how that presentation was shown on the DVD, that disc's encode aside (it was laced with digital artifacts), the restoration wasn’t all that shabby. A number of flaws, trams lines, and tears remained, but the image was unbelievably sharp and crisp with improved contrast. Despite the DVD’s encoding issues, for the time, I thought the restoration looked impressive.
Outside of the boost that this new high-definition presentation offers by default over the old DVD (fewer artifacts, less compression noise, enhanced details) the new restoration itself delivers significant improvements over that 20+ year-old one. Basically, all of the flaws that existed in that previous restoration have been mostly wiped out, from a persistent scratch that kept popping up throughout the film to all of the large marks, bits of dirt, and tram lines. There are still some minor bits of dirt remaining, along with minor fluctuations (the DVD showed heavier fluctuations), yet nothing that would really draw one's attention to it.
The digital presentation itself is also solid, and, as hinted at in the previous paragraph, this aspect offers an enormous upgrade over the DVD’s. Contrast and grayscale look incredible, and black levels are strong without crushing out details. Brighter daytime sequences are also quite bright, but whites never bloom. Film grain is rendered pretty well, though things can get a little bit noisy around sweaters or shawls. The image is incredibly sharp, with an exceptional level of detail in the finer areas, but there are a couple of sequences that take on a dupier look. The most notable of these is the longer sequence about an hour and 37-minutes into the film, where Oscar is talking marriage to Cabiria: the image gets very fuzzy and looks darker. Past that, it’s a very clean, very crisp looking image, offering an incredible upgrade over the out-of-print DVD.
Criterion’s Blu-ray delivers a new restoration of the film’s Italian soundtrack, presented here in lossless PCM 1.0 mono. For whatever reason, the English-dub found on the DVD has not been ported over.
The new soundtrack does show a noticeable upgrade over the DVD’s: it’s sharper and less edgy, with both music and dialogue showing improvements. Range and fidelity are both limited, but damage is never a concern and background noise is minimal. It's worth noting that there is one moment, during the "mesmerist" sequence, where it seems some spoken dialogue is missing, but the sequence plays similarly on the DVD and it may just be the timing of the subtitles that end up giving the feeling dialogue is missing. Outside of that one moment (which is more than likely not even an issue) no severe issues stood out.
Criterion ports most of the material from their DVD over to this edition, while also adding some new material. The first new item is the 52-minute documentary Giulietta Masina: The Power of a Smile, which is very similar in structure to the Fellini documentary that appears on the disc for La strada: it edits together archival interviews featuring Masina, constructing an autobiography of sorts. Through these interviews she talks about her early radio work and where she met Fellini before touching on her film work, with a heavier focus on La strada and Nights of Cabiria, and she covers the Oscars ceremony around the latter film. Breaking this up a bit, the documentary does also edit in interviews with people that knew Masina, including Fellini himself (though audio-only). The docuementary is fine for what it is, providing a solid overview of Masina’s work and career, but like that similar Fellini documentary on the La strada disc, it can be a bit of chore because of its structure.
Much better is the third episode from Second Look’s four-part series featuring Andre Delvaux interviewing Fellini. This episode ends up centering around La strada and Nights of Cabiria, and Fellini talks a little about the films, including how Masina was the inspiration. But the benefit to this episode are the interviews Delvaux gets with the others that worked on the films, including Masina, writer Tullio Pinelli, costume designer Piero Gherardi, and even Pier Paolo Pasolini, who came in to touch up Cabiria’s dialogue. It’s these latter interviews that end up making this episode the best of the four. It runs 33-minutes.
The other items have all been ported from the DVD, starting with a 1999 interview with assistant director Dominique Delouche. For 31-minutes he recounts first meeting Fellini (told a little differently compared to what he recounts in his 2013 interview found on the Il bidone disc) and then how he came to work on Nights of Cabiria. He also talks about Fellini’s directing style, the casting process, and also covers the “man with a sack” sequence, which he was shocked to see was removed when he saw the film at the premiere.
This sequence was added back in with the 1998 restoration (and is yet again found in this new one), but Delouche, in his interview, is unsure why it had been cut out, with one rumour suggesting it was done at the behest of the Catholic Church. Dino De Laurentiis ends up answering this in the next feature, a 4-minute excerpt from an audio interview with the producer. De Laurentiis explains how he felt the lengthy sequence killed the pacing of the film and strongly recommended to Fellini that the sequence should be removed. Fellini refused. De Laurentiis explains how he himself had final cut, but he hated using that power so continued to work on Fellini to remove it (to make it seem like his idea I guess), even using test screenings where the shorter version of the film did test better. Fellini still refused. Eventually, De Laurentiis confesses, he stole the footage and hid it. While I have basically spoiled the story here (more for posterity I guess), it’s still worth listening to here as De Laurentiis does put a funny little spin on it.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer and the 1998 Rialto re-release trailer. A couple of features from the DVD are missing, though it makes sense they wouldn't be here: a restoration demonstration, since it revolved around the older restoration, and an excerpt from The White Sheik featuring the character of Cabiria, since the film is included in the set (when the DVD for Nights of Cabiria was released, I don’t believe The White Sheik was yet available on DVD anywhere).
The lack of academic material is a bit of a letdown, but the material around the film does an okay job covering its production.
The film looks incredible with this new presentation, besting Criterion’s previous DVD by a large margin.